Abla Ahmad has a well-earned reputation for being a passionate, generous and energetic cook. Recently, an admirer of her cookbook stopped by Abla’s restaurant for dinner while on holiday. When Abla heard how keen her guest was on Lebanese food, she invited the woman and her husband to visit her home the next day to enjoy a private meal. The woman explained that they would love to do so, but were on a morning flight to Tasmania. ‘Well,’ Abla replied. ‘Come as early as you like.’
Now, for many of us, the thought of feeding strangers at home after a long night spent in the kitchen would not appeal, especially if cooking was how you’d made your living since 1979. But Abla laughs at the idea that preparing meals is ever a chore. ‘I never tire of cooking,’ she says. Even now, with five grown children and eleven grandchildren, Abla works in her eponymous restaurant in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton.
‘I miss this place when I’m away,’ she says. ‘People keep telling me to slow down, but I love being here, and I love all the people around me. Everyone at Abla’s is part of a family for me.’
Abla’s two-storey restaurant sits on a busy road, but inside the warm and cosy terrace, the traffic is barely audible. Light olive-painted walls are filled with paintings, pressed white tablecloths are neatly laid out first thing in the morning, and fresh flowers scent the front foyer. Before lunch, everyone who works here is calmly industrious, bustling in and out of the small kitchen, calling to one another in Arabic, as food is delivered and dishes prepared. ‘Everything is made fresh every day, from the best-quality produce,’ Abla says.
Her restaurant is regularly cited in food guides for its unwaveringly authentic Lebanese cuisine and friendly atmosphere, and it’s a rare foodie event that takes place in Melbourne without Abla’s participation, though she points out it wasn’t always so. ‘When I first opened up, I’d sometimes have only two or three customers a day. I’d be the waitress and the cook. And I’d have to explain all the dishes to people,’ she says.
Hummus, tabouleh, falafel and baklava are so familiar to Australians now it’s hard to believe there was a time when Lebanese food was regarded as a curiosity. But when Abla arrived here in 1954, aged 19, most Australians were accustomed to a plate of meat and three veg for their evening meal. It was an era in which, as Margaret Fulton recalls, women who bravely tried her recipe for spaghetti met with puzzlement. At the same time as we all wrestled with the idea of pasta, Abla was being schooled by her uncle Joe, in a flat above a shirt factory in Carlton, in the correct way to make dishes flavoured with mint, rosewater, pistachio, cumin and lemon, to be accompanied by thick coffee.
While Abla was born in a village in northern Lebanon, and lived there until her late teens, she says it was her uncle in Melbourne who really taught her the secrets of traditional Lebanese cooking. ‘I didn’t do much cooking in Lebanon, though I learned a lot from watching my mother. I remember her drying zucchini, eggplant, okra, peas and green beans through the warm months, and hanging them in cotton on the walls of our house, so we could use them in winter. She would also keep an eye out for any fresh food that was available – wherever it might be. In the mountains above northern Beirut you see apple, pear, cherry and orange trees full of fruit. When I came here I used to think nothing of going up to the Dandenongs and picking fresh watercress from the side of the road. It was delicious! I also get lemons off friends’ trees and ask the local boys to help rake the olives off my daughter-in-law’s tree. Food in season is always best. Now, though, I can get most things year-round. I don’t have to get by with dried ingredients like my mother did.
‘My uncle Joe was an enthusiastic entertainer so when I arrived in Melbourne he had me working with him in his kitchen in no time! I’d also visit neighbouring women who had immigrated here like me and we would cook together. I learned an enormous amount from the Lebanese people I met here.’
While Abla initially served up Middle Eastern treats only to the converted – newly arrived Lebanese immigrants who would feast on her cooking after mass at the local Maronite church – word of her kitchen prowess spread. Soon she was cooking for neighbours and friends too. ‘Back then,’ she says, ‘there were people from all over the place in my neighbourhood – we had Jewish neighbours, Italians, Greeks, Lebanese and it was so friendly. We got along. The Lebanese women I knew would come to my house and we would use the wood-fired oven my husband made me to bake bread together. I was always cooking.’
When she opened her restaurant, Abla helped introduce Melburnians to a cuisine that offers a unique combining of Arabic and European flavours. The recipes she uses have been shaped and influenced by every culture that has tried to lay claim to Lebanon, from the Persians, Romans and Arabs, to the Ottomans and French. She makes an effort to cook in a way that respects the old methods. ‘Younger cooks don’t want to do the slow dishes that take a bit of time, like vine-leaf rolls,’ she says. ‘They like the quick cooking, which is fine for them, but I cook the same way I did when I was young. I like to make Lebanese food the way my mother, mother-in-law, aunt and uncle did. That’s what I do the best.’
Abla points out that as well as boasting an exotic blend of flavours, Lebanese food offers many health benefits we’re only now recognising. It is a cuisine built around fresh vegetables and salads, fish and fruit. It makes liberal use of heart-healthy garlic and olive oil, and is low on fatty dairy products. Meat dishes tend to call for lamb or chicken, which is generally grilled or baked rather than fried. Meats and legumes are often served with lemon juice, which contributes to a piquant flavour, but also aids the body’s uptake of iron from the food. For vegetarians, it’s fare to be favoured over many others, with its liberal use of chickpeas, lentils and spinach. This is a cuisine that could have been designed by a modern nutritionist.
Lebanese food also celebrates cooking and eating as activities that bring family and community together. In part because of this heritage, and in part because it is her nature, Abla Ahmad takes a genuine interest in the people who dine in her restaurant, and regards them as part of the history of the place. ‘After dinner and before they have their dessert, I always make sure to walk around and talk to every customer,’ Abla says. ‘I want to know how they are and if they’ve enjoyed their food. I have customers who’ve been coming here so long that I’ve fed their children and grandchildren. I’ve been to weddings for my customers. Some have even been married right here in my restaurant! One customer met her fiancé here, then had her engagement and wedding here.’
Abla has passed her passion for cooking and her knowledge onto her own children. Her daughters, Patricia and Margret-Anne, and daughter-in-law Nafflie have all worked at Abla’s at one point or another, helping to cook and serve the dishes that Abla has offered for the past thirty years.
‘It’s definitely Abla’s restaurant,’ Nafflie says. ‘But it’s been a family affair since the beginning. Her sons have helped clean and mend the restaurant, we work in the kitchen, and when Margret-Anne was still at school she used to manage the laundry – which involved ironing hundreds of napkins so it was no mean feat!’ Abla’s ‘family’ spreads to include the local Lebanese community too. One of the women who worked with her in the spotless, white-tiled kitchen right from the early years is still with her today.
Saturday mornings now find Abla in her home kitchen with her seven granddaughters, who range in age from seven to twenty-four, watching and helping as she teaches them how to make cabbage rolls, tabouleh, or spinach pies. ‘Whenever any of us asks Abla how to make something she’ll beckon us into the kitchen and say “watch”,’ Nafflie says. ‘It’s the way that recipes have been passed on for generations.’
And it’s not only recipes that are being passed down, but also a way of regarding work, food, family and community as inextricably linked in a way that is positive and fulfilling. ‘Cooking is what I love to do,’ Abla says. ‘And if you do something you love, and with people you love, you’ll never go wrong.’ And with that, despite the fact she worked at the stove till late the night before, Abla heads towards the back of the restaurant, adjusting her apron and calling out to her family in the kitchen.
109 Elgin Street
Carlton Vic 3053
(03) 9347 0006